Unapologetically uplifting songs like the Act II opener “Sun’s Gonna Shine” have pressed a consensus judgment that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Broadway-bound period musical Bright Star is too heavy on the sweet and wholesome while lacking in narrative meat and guts. And that’s true.
But “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” along with most of the other musical numbers, is lovely and well-crafted and makes you feel good. The music throughout Bright Star conducted by pianist Rob Berman and featuring guitars, a banjo and strings is appealing and its bluegrass roots refreshingly different from the usual musical theater score.
Aside from the optimistic acclamations, there are songs of conflict (“Please, Don’t Take Him”), anguish (“Heartbreaker”), yearning (“I Can’t Wait,” “I Had a Vision”) confession (“If You Knew My Story,” “Way Back in the Day”), and big musical fun (“Another Round”).
Further, the music’s not the only thing in its favor: Bright Star is superbly directed and choreographed, gorgeously designed and winningly performed by all. Directed by Walter Bobbie, the production is currently playing at The Kennedy Center before beginning performances on Broadway next Spring.
Inspired by Martin and Brickell’s Grammy-winning album, “Love Has Come for You,” the musical is a softened Southern Gothic tale of love, loss and youthful ardor that jumps back and forth between the 1920s and 1940s in North Carolina’s Appalachian country.
World War II veteran Billy Cane (A.J. Shively) returns to his Blue Ridge mountain home, ready to pursue dreams of being published. His ambition leads him to Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), editor of a prominent literary magazine in Asheville. His bright future and her dark past propel the show forward to its predictable ending.
This will be Cusack’s Broadway debut in a starring role and she’s fantastic. After a modest, low-key opening number, her talents soar in the show’s best section. Beginning with the sumptuously sung “Way Back in the Day,” Cusack transforms from the older, buttoned-up magazine editor into the wild thing of her youth in a seamless, beautifully staged transition directed by Bobbie and choreographer Josh Rhodes and aided by Eugene Lee’s neatly stylized set. Cusack is excellent at portraying both ages—the wizened Alice who’s taken life’s punches and the smart, eager girl fixated on its promise.
“Way Back…” segues into the folksy “Whoa, Mama” and foot-stomping “Firmer Hand/Do Right,” showing us where Alice comes from and her youthful love affair with local prince Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). Both numbers showcase Cusack’s engaging buoyancy as an actress and mellifluous, twangy vocals. She can also exude depth, as seen and heard during the slower numbers “I Had a Vision,” and the soulful, mellow “I Can’t Wait.”
The rest of the cast comprise a terrific whole, especially Nolan, who shares an electric chemistry with Cusack and Hannah Elless, playing Billy’s underdeveloped love interest Margo Crawford. Elless is fetching in every scene she’s in and delivers a lovely rendition of the ballad “Ashville.”
December 2 – January 10, 2016
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $175
And yet, the criticisms are unavoidable. A polished production, affable performances and even really good music does not make a show for the ages or even guarantee a memorable one.
This big-hearted musical is not yet mature, but still a teenager needing encouragement and nourishment in the workshop. It’s got so much to offer, but the ungainly, weak book stunts its ability to stir greatness.
Bright Star may not be great, but it abounds with genuine feel-good. Not the syrupy type crassly sold at most of the big musicals, but more of the deeply felt, compelling kind that keeps the flame burning in all of us.
Bright Star. Music and Story by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Book by Steve Martin. Lyrics by Edie Brickell. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Cast: Carmen Cusack, Paul Alexander Nolan, Michael Mulheren, A.J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz. Scenic design: Eugene Lee. Costume design: Jane Greenwood. Lighting design: Japhy Weideman. Sound design: Nevin Steinberg. Hair and wig design: Tom Watson. Choreography: Josh Rhodes. Music supervision: Peter Asher. Music director: Rob Berman. Orchestrations: August Eriksmoen. Production stage manager: Michael Passaro. Produced by Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, 40 Share Productions, Jay Alix & Una Jackman, and James L. Nederlander. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.